Friday, 2 December 2016

The EU may get its first far-right president. But does it matter?

Sunday may be a pivotal turning point for Europe, but not because of the presidential election in Austria. A referendum in Italy could bring the euro back to crisis point.

In May, when Austria held its first attempt at holding a presidential election, newspapers in the UK and the US were full of breathless coverage. "Austria is on the brink of electing Europe's first far-right president since WWII" they declared.

The BBC and The Guardian both used the occasion to run features about the 'rise of nationalism and populism in Europe', both of which curiously left out Britain's own UK Independence Party. 'Populism is other people' they convinced themselves. Now, after Brexit and Trump, the Anglo-American coverage is quite different.

And the coverage has returned, because the Austrian election is being re-run this Sunday, 4 December. 

In May, the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer, the leader of the Freedom Party, was beaten by Alexander Van der Bellen from the Green Party by just a few thousand votes. The two were facing each other in a shock second round after the country's main center-right and center-left candidates were eliminated. It was the first time a candidate from either the Greens or Freedom Party made it to the second round.

Friday, 18 November 2016

3/4 of electorate gave their nod to Trumpism

In the week since the US presidential election I've seen a lot of people posting that "only one in five Americans" endorsed Trump for president. No.

While it is true that only 19.5% of Americans cast a vote for Donald Trump last Tuesday (versus 19.8% for Clinton), one cannot then make the leap to say that 80% of Americans are opposed to Trump and are being dragged along unwillingly. That is nonsense.

First off, 29% of Americans are not eligible to vote, either because they are too young or because they have committed a crime. We have no way of knowing how those people feel about Trump. Then we have to people who were eligible to vote but chose not to - 45% of the eligible population.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Obama passes the torch to Merkel

For the past 70 years the US President has been known as the 'leader of the free world'. Tomorrow Barack Obama arrives in Berlin to hand that title to the German chancellor.

Barack Obama's European farewell tour, which is kicking off in Athens today, was meant to be a triumphant farewell to a continent where he remains enormously popular.

Instead, the trip has become a crisis tour. The US president must urgently reassure the European public that the continent is not about to be plunged into war by a Donald Trump presidency, and that American moral leadership remains intact. In his private meetings, however, he will have to acknowledge that he cannot assure any such thing. He will have to urgently plan with European leaders for how to peacefully transition to a post-Trump world.

The most important of these meetings will come tomorrow in Berlin, when he meets with the reluctant new leader of Western liberal democracy - Angela Merkel.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Think you can escape America? Think again

Horrified by what I was seeing from Americans, I left the country a decade ago. But I came to learn that wherever I go, the American people determine my fate.

On 2 November 2004 I made a fateful choice. I was living in Chicago at the time, and was watching that year’s presidential election results at a friend’s apartment. We were all pretty sure that Democrat John Kerry was going to win. After all, sitting president George W Bush had been completely discredited by the Iraq War debacle, right?

It didn’t work out that way. Despite polls predicting a Kerry win, Bush emerged victorious. People at the apartment were perplexed, some were crying. I left by myself and walked to Lake Michigan. I stared out at the water and decided I did not see a future for myself in the United States. I vowed to move to Europe.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

As America votes, Europe holds its breath

Once again, Europeans wait while 300 million people on another continent determine their future. Why do they accept this state of affairs?

If you think things are tense in the United States right now, you should try it here in Central and Eastern Europe. 

People are incredibly anxious about what might happen on 8 November. There are the obvious concerns - a volatile and unpredictable man being given access to America's nuclear arsenal after a victory sending global markets into freefall. In an age when America is still the bedrock of the global military and economic order, such an earthquake would send shockwaves throughout the world.

These are the worries of the whole globe right now. But in Europe, they have additional reason to fear. No area of the world is more dependent on the United States for its peace and prosperity than Europe. And it is this dependence that makes the media's coverage of US presidential elections here so breathless. In many ways, Europeans devote more attention to the American election than they do their own.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Soft Brexit or Hard Brexit? It's a false choice

Today's vote in Wallonia against an EU-Canada free trade deal makes it painfully clear - Europeans will not approve any arrangement that lets Britain have its cake and eat it too.

Over the past weeks, people in the UK have been engaged in a tortured debate - should we have a "hard Brexit" or a "soft Brexit"?

A hard Brexit, viewed by most people (even the Brexiteers) as the worst outcome, would mean that the UK cuts economic ties with Europe, and continues to trade with the EU only on WTO terms. In other words, the UK is left with the same relationship with the EU enjoyed by Morocco.

A 'soft Brexit' would mean the UK retains market access while formally leaving the EU. This would occur either by the UK joining the EEA (à la Norway and Iceland) or negotiating bilateral treaties (à la Switzerland). Either of the latter two options would involve compromise. Crucially, the EU has made clear that the UK can't have either of these "soft Brexit" scenarios without maintaining freedom of movement (the ability for EU citizens to live and work in any EU country).